Sunday, 29 November 2009

A stalemate in the Lisbon derby that owed more to poor creativity than great defending

Case Study: Sporting 0-0 Benfica, 28th November 2009

Benfica made the bizarre decision of switching Pablo Aimar and Ramires from their usual starting positions, meaning Aimar was stranded out on the right, and Ramires’ surging runs from midfield were restricted against a Sporting side clearly looking to pack the midfield to stifle creativity.

Sporting’s side was basically a defensive 4-2-3-1, except with Miguel Veloso – nominally a holding midfielder – stationed on the left side of midfield. Fernandes, in the advanced central midfield position, was almost completely invisible thanks to the solid, reliable Javi Garcia, whilst the right-winger, Vukcevic, is so incredibly left-footed that it was possible to read his intentions before he’d even picked up the ball on most occasions.

Benfica should be applauded for attacking with five players, even in a tricky away game like this, but their problem was that Sporting basically had seven players aimed simply at stopping them. Aimar discovered there was little room up against Veloso, Ramires found the midfield claustrophic and Saviola often ran into Adrien, the young midfield destroyer. Angel di Maria was the one who found space, but his end product was more often than not absolutely shocking.

Benfica desperately needed support from their full-backs, yet Peixoto and Pereira appeared to be under strict orders, at least in the first half, not to venture forward whatsoever. They were afforded more freedom in the second period, but Peixoto found Vukcevic too much of a concern to venture forward too much.

The real problem was in the right-back position. With Sporting’s Veloso tucked in, there was a huge amount of space for Pereira to exploit, yet he is a player who seems completely lacking in any pace or ability on the ball. With a player comfortable in possession, at least one Sporting player (probably Veloso) would have been drawn to him, opening up space in behind, which would have made it 5 v 6 from Benfica’s perspective, rather than 5 v 7.

That said, Sporting were the home side, and their lack of ambition for much of the game was shocking. Miguel Veloso is completely wasted on the left. Perhaps there’s a case for suggesting he can create from a wide area in a similar way to how Andres Iniesta does when he plays for Barcelona, but he’s not a pacey or skilful player. The way Moutinho and he command the midfield when deployed in the centre together is impressive, and if both were given the license to move forward (with the scrappy young Adrien covering behind), it would have given Javi Garcia more of a problem.

Liedson, Sporting’s sole forward, is a decent, but limited player. Since (as of last year) he’s Portuguese, it’s fair to categorise him as a typical Portuguese forward. His movement is absolutely superb, but he simply offers little goal threat against top defences. There’s a perception that lone forwards have to be strong and tall – they don’t, they can play the role effectively by constantly showing good movement, as Wayne Rooney does for Manchester United. Liedson does that well, but when his nine outfield teammates are so far from him, it’s impossible for the space he creates to be exploited effectively.

I haven’t seen Sporting enough this season to explain why their failings currently see them closer to the relegation zone that to the top of the table (against Fiorentina in the Champions League qualifiers they seemed well-equipped), but you can’t go into a home game with such little ambition and hope to pick up wins.

Benfica disappointed yesterday, but remain one of the most tactically exciting sides in Europe.


  • There are two options you can choose when playing a lone striker. You can have a big, strong target man (a la Heskey) or an intelligent player with good movement (a la Rooney). Both can work, but the latter will only work if you have onrushing midfielders to exploit the space the forward creates. If the midfielders are consistently thirty yards from the striker when he gets the ball, a target man would be more appropriate, to hold the ball up and wait for support.
  • If you're the side on top, your full-backs must be good on the ball.


  1. Surely you need onrushing midfielders if you are playing a big target man as well? They get awfully isolated up on their own, and unless they have express pace, they are rarely going to score goals.

    Your point about Liedson is a good one. I made a similar point here ( about the role that Bobby Zamora plays at Fulham.

    Ok sure, he's not quite in the same league as Liedson, but one of the lone striker's main task (especially a big target man) is to bring the midfield into play.

  2. And of course Zamora isn't a lone striker, and has a partner up front, but the role that he plays is very similar.

  3. Indeed – sorry, I probably phrased that wrong. Of course, you need onrushing midfield players if you’re playing a lone striker, whatever style he plays.

    My point (which was made quite poorly, I must say) was that if the lone striker is one who can hold the ball up (say, Emile Heskey) then it’s OK for the midfield to be 25 yards away when he receives the ball, because Heskey can hang onto it for a few seconds and they’ll be in close support.

    But if you’re playing someone like Liedson, whose movement is his key, then it’s only possible for midfield players to exploit the space he creates if they’re extremely close to the frontman. Liedson constantly pulled one (sometimes two) of the centre-backs away from the area they should have been in, but because the midfield was thirty yards behind him, they couldn’t exploit the space. And of course, because Liedson wasn’t holding up the ball, there was no time for them to make up the ground.

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